Koppel’s Therapy

On the set of Ted Koppel's final Nightline broadcast.Photo: David Burnett/Contact Press

The party had the potential for turning ugly. On a rainy November night, some 350 people filed into Washington’s Kennedy Center for ABC’s going-away fête for Ted Koppel. Here was Barbara Walters, there was Tim Russert, there was the anchor ghost of yesteryear, Dan Rather. As a three-piece jazz combo played in the Terrace restaurant above the Potomac, the room swirled with admiration, warmth, and anxiety. Two days earlier, when I had mentioned to Koppel that the ABC brass seemed nervous that he might take parting shots in his final days, he grinned mischievously and replied, “They’re terrified. They’re afraid I’ll say something bad about the new show.” Nightline is moving from its humble D.C. studio to a glitzy Times Square set, and Koppel’s one-anchor, one-topic format will give way to a three-anchor, multi-segment form.

After 42 years with ABC, Koppel, the last of a generation of TV-news lions still with a nightly anchor chair, was leaving the network, vacating his seat as the host and managing editor of the pioneering late-night long-form news program Nightline. Officially, Koppel left Nightline voluntarily. Unofficially, he was elbowed out by ABC News president David Westin. Westin, of course, was the evening’s master of ceremonies.

During the cocktail hour, Westin kept insisting he wasn’t the villain. “I would have loved for Ted to stay, and I think he knows that,” he said. “I tried everything I could within reason to make it possible.” The “within reason” qualifier (Westin is a former ABC corporate lawyer) didn’t exactly exonerate him.

At the podium, Westin went out of his way to lavishly praise Koppel’s “extraordinary body of work.” “He’s taken on stories no one else wanted to do,” said Westin, citing Nightline’s shows on AIDS, race relations, criminal justice, death and dying—topics of high civic importance, but no match in the ratings game for Leno and Letterman. Nightline’s ratings have slipped from 4.8 million households ten years ago to 2.8 million this fall. Leno currently draws about 5.6 million, Letterman 3.4 million.

With a rueful nod at his own tangled relationship with Koppel, Westin closed by saying, “He has always been brave in speaking what he sees as the truth and telling people things they may not want to hear, including those in power who didn’t want to hear it, and even some of us who thought we had power over him.” People snickered knowingly.

Koppel has spent thousands of hours speaking unscripted on television, but he carried a sheaf of written remarks with him to the podium. (“I wanted to be sure I got it right,” he says.) Koppel began by telling Westin, “I think, David, each of us in his own way has been dreading this evening—which has been a truly lovely event.” Koppel thanked Westin for allowing him to do the show his way for the last few months, right up until the end. “You told me that Nightline would continue to be my broadcast until I left, and you’ve stayed with that commitment.”

After an Oscar-night round of thank-yous, Koppel made a surprising move, inviting the new Nightline team to join him. Cynthia McFadden, the only one of the anchors present—Terry Moran and Martin Bashir didn’t make it—was caught off guard. She was on her way out the door when Koppel called her up. Once she and Nightline’s new British executive producer, James Goldston (famed for producing Bashir’s controversial Michael Jackson BBC documentary), were onstage, Koppel continued. “Even I am getting tired of the question in print—‘Can they fill Ted’s shoes?’ ” Then he offered the new crew the equivalent of a parting gift.

After reading two reviews of Nightline by the Washington Post’s Tom Shales—a vicious put-down after the first broadcast on March 24, 1980, and a rave ten months later—Koppel closed by saying, “I don’t know if everyone will give you a fair amount of time, but I promise you—I will.”

The crowd cheered. Westin was visibly relieved. One of Koppel’s friends marveled afterward at how the anchorman deftly handled the situation: “Ted is a class act, and he doesn’t want his retirement to be muddied with crap being thrown back and forth,” the friend said. “But on the other hand—he’s pissed.”

At ABC’s Washington bureau, Koppel’s relatively small office is tucked away in a third-floor corner. In addition to some of his 42 Emmys on display, there’s a motorcycle poster taped on the door (he rides a BMW), a photo of Koppel applying makeup to Bruce Springsteen, and a sign above the doorway with the immortal words of the Wizard of Oz: NO ONE GETS TO SEE THE WIZARD. NOT NO ONE. NOT NO HOW. With two weeks left before his final show, the office was stacked high with boxes, the shelves half-empty.

From left, Koppel as a young ABC reporter in 1970, and with Nelson Mandela in 1990.Photo: Courtesy of ABC photo archives

After anchoring more than 6,500 Nightline broadcasts, Koppel’s image as the unflappable newsman is freeze-framed in the public consciousness. “He’s a cool cat,” says Ben Bradlee. And in the weeks leading up to the final Nightline broadcast on November 22, Koppel had been mostly just that. He had done the farewell-tour newspaper interviews and talk shows—Larry King, NPR, Letterman—and generally struck a genial, measured tone. “He is at peace,” Tim Johnson, ABC’s medical correspondent and a longtime Koppel pal, told me. Yet here in his office, Koppel is by turns outspoken, reflective, funny, and, at times, yup, pissed.

At the moment, he’s howling against the sorry state of television news. “When I look back 30 years ago, we had 25 foreign correspondents, and now we have five.” His voice rises. “To just dismiss foreign news because it’s boring is idiocy. I understand that corporations need to make money. I also remember that broadcasters in exchange for their licenses are supposed to operate in the public interest, and that means covering the news.”

When I ask him later for his reaction to CNN’s dismissal of Aaron Brown in favor of Anderson Cooper, Koppel describes Cooper as “bright, passionate, committed, and hardworking.” Then he uses the question as a launching pad to rail against network executives who use focus groups to determine whom to hire and promote. “If your way of designing a program is to bring in a couple dozen folks in three or four cities and hook them up with galvanic skin tests to see whether they get hot flashes when they see this young man or that young woman, you’re destined to fail.” Had such techniques been available years ago, Koppel adds, he wouldn’t have had much of a career. “God knows, who the hell would have picked this jug-eared diplomatic correspondent?”

Twice in the past two years, Koppel has raised the ire of the Bush administration with segments called “The Fallen,” in which he read aloud the names of the soldiers who had died in Iraq. “I didn’t do it to piss them off,” he says. “It was to honor the people who have lost their lives, to remind us that a tiny fragment of the population is bearing a disproportionate burden.” His voice drips with contempt as he talks about the Bush team’s spin tactics on Iraq. “There’s this sense, ‘Don’t worry your pretty little heads about what’s going on over there—just do what we tell you, don’t question it. We know what we’re doing, leave the grown-ups alone.’ It’s not smart, it’s not healthy, and in the final analysis, it doesn’t work.”

Eventually, I get to Koppel’s breakup with ABC. At first, Koppel tries to frame the split as a simple economics problem. “For all programs that last a long time with the same anchor or central figure, whether it’s Johnny Carson or me, by virtue of many, many years of negotiation, you start making an obscene amount of money,” says Koppel, whose salary has been estimated at $10 million a year (he won’t comment). “Given the emergence of cable TV, and more and more competition, the income line is going down. There’s all kinds of economic imperatives to saying, ‘We can have three anchors, and they aren’t going to cost nearly as much as one anchor makes.’ ”

But I thought this was a squeeze play, I say. “I got the impression they gave you an offer—”

He interrupts, “—that they knew I wouldn’t accept?”

“Wasn’t that done to get you to leave?” I ask.

“You’ll have to ask David.”

“What did you think?”

“I’m not a stupid guy,” Koppel says. “I have long understood what the pressures are that cause people up the line at Disney to say, ‘Could we be making a lot more money if we didn’t have a news program?’ David confronts the issue of ‘How do I best keep Nightline alive?’ I’m not the easiest guy in the world to convince that you need to be doing the program a different way.” (In a conference call with reporters last week, Goldston kept saying he planned to “modernize” Nightline and took a swipe at Koppel by saying, “My hope and expectation is that we can make the show vibrant again.”)

Koppel seems sincere when he tells me he hopes the new version of Nightline succeeds. “There are a lot of people I care about,” he says. Still, he’s not above a little critique. For all the ballyhoo that Nightline will be live every night, Koppel says many interviews will be pretaped because guests don’t want to come to a studio late at night. He wonders if using three anchors on a 22-minute broadcast could lead to a three-way slugfest over air time. “I don’t know Martin. I know Terry a little and Cynthia a little. I assume that each of them has a healthy ego. That means each of them is going to be looking at ‘Does she get top billing? Does he get top billing?’ ”

With an hour left before the 5:30 taping (the broadcast has been prerecorded since 1992), Koppel excuses himself to write the show’s close. When he emerges, it’s as if he’s had a personality change—the curmudgeonly anchor replaced by the morale-boosting team captain. Taping promos in the studio, Koppel deliberately blows his lines to lighten the mood. Introducing a segment on newly found Charlie Chaplin movies, he says, “He was known as the tramp—no, that was his wife. He was known as the Little Tramp.” Rather than tape a straight handoff to George Stephanopoulos, who will be appearing live at 11:35 to handle the night’s election coverage, Koppel quips, “Now I can go have dinner with my wife. Here’s George.”

Right after the broadcast, Koppel and Tom Bettag, Nightline’s longtime executive producer, disappear into a side office for a private farewell with a 24-year Nightline floor manager who had just been pink-slipped in advance of the new regime; she emerges with moist eyes. Koppel looks shaken. “The only people I know are going to be all right are the people who are coming with Tom and me,” Koppel says (he and Bettag are setting up their own production unit). “I’m in no position to extract any assurances about what will happen to anyone else.”

How did the simmering acrimony between Koppel and ABC end up in a divorce? You could make the case that Koppel and Nightline have been at war with ABC ever since the Letterman debacle. In February 2002, Michael Eisner, then chairman of ABC’s parent company, Walt Disney, tried to woo the late-night comic, whose CBS contract was up, to replace Koppel in the 11:35 time slot. Koppel was at his vacation home in Florida when he got the news by phone from Westin (Westin had also been kept in the dark). Koppel was irate that the network, for whom he had earned more than half a billion dollars, hadn’t even given him a courtesy heads-up. “I never questioned their right to put someone else in; they have a right to do what they want,” Koppel says. “But they did it in a shabby way.” Indeed, an anonymous Disney executive was quoted bad-mouthing Koppel in the press, claiming that Nightline was no longer “relevant” and implying that Koppel was phoning it in. (In 2000, at age 60, Koppel had reduced his schedule to three days a week in anticipation of retirement.) Once Letterman decided to stay put, Koppel demanded, and got, a commitment that ABC would keep Nightline on the air for two more years, but the ill will lingered. “The public and embarrassing flirtation with Letterman put Ted in a difficult position,” says Good Morning America’s Charlie Gibson. “When your baby is shopped, the way a ballplayer is shopped, that leads to a degree of, well, I wouldn’t use the word bitter. Say, disappointment.”

Since then, says Leroy Sievers, a Nightline veteran who took over the show’s day-to-day producing reins from Bettag at the end of 2000, there has been nonstop friction with Westin and the rest of the ABC brass. “I’ve never worked for a network that was trying to kill its own show,” says Sievers. Sievers says he repeatedly begged executives to promote the show, to no avail, and that budgets were tightened. He also says he clashed with Westin on the show’s direction. “David wanted a Good Morning America sensibility. I was told that people want to go to bed happy.” (Westin declined to comment on specific events regarding Nightline. “One of the things I’ve learned in this job is that I never discuss process,” he says.)

Tensions built up. Koppel got a bad rap for not being a team player over an incident that occurred during the invasion of Iraq. Embedded with the Army Third Infantry Division, Koppel twice found himself in danger zones, with shots being fired nearby, at times when he was scheduled to appear on Good Morning America. “There were battles going on behind us. I said, ‘Once you put the satellite up, you’ve got to use us right away,’ ” he says. “They kept me waiting a couple of times, longer than I thought was either polite or safe. So I said, forget it.” He refused to appear on the show for several days. “David was furious,” says one ABC correspondent.

Koppel says he offered to give up some of his salary if ABC would invest in ‘Nightline.’ But “corporations don’t want to save money per se,” he says. “They need bodies.”

Ratings for Nightline spike when major news events happen—when Hurricane Katrina hit in August, more than 5 million people tuned in to Nightline—but the show generally remains a distant third in its time slot. With executives constantly grumbling about the show’s profitability, Koppel says he volunteered last year to give back to ABC a hefty chunk of salary (he won’t say how much, but when I asked whether he was talking seven figures, he didn’t demur) if the company would invest it in staff salaries and travel to revive the show. His offer was turned down. “The way corporations operate, they don’t want to save money per se,” he says. “They need bodies.” One brand-name ABC staffer, who has not always seen eye-to-eye with Westin, offers a different version of events. The network president, he says, isn’t entirely to blame. “A few years ago, David went down there and said, ‘You’re losing millions of dollars. Fix it. I’m behind you. I can come down and impose my views, but you guys value your independence. You fix it.’ And they never did.”

Last November, a New York–based ABC news executive, Paul Mason, who had been put in charge of supervising Nightline, traveled to Washington to meet with the program’s staff—without Koppel, Bettag, and Sievers—and things quickly turned rancorous. “Mason kicked the senior producers and executives out of the room, then told us our jobs were in trouble,” says one staffer who was at the meeting. “He was trashing people. It seemed like he wanted to elicit negative information about the leadership of the show.” Koppel won’t discuss the incident, but he made his displeasure known to news management. Mason, who also supervises World News Tonight, subsequently gave up his Nightline portfolio (although he’s now involved again with the new show). In Washington, the outspoken Sievers’s contract wasn’t renewed, and Bettag took over the executive producer’s job again.

With Koppel’s contract set to expire at the end of this year, Westin made him a proposal that was essentially an ultimatum: If Koppel wanted to stay at Nightline, he had to do the show live five nights a week. “I said, that’s not going to happen. I’ve been there and done that,” says Koppel. Koppel also turned down a Westin proposition to take over the ratings-troubled Sunday talk show now anchored by George Stephanopoulos. “Tom Bettag and I kept talking about it, and we couldn’t get excited,” Koppel says. (When I asked Stephanopoulos at Koppel’s farewell party how it felt to have his job shopped, he was taken aback. “Honestly?” he sputtered. Then he laughed. “If someone else is going to get your job, and it’s Ted Koppel, what can you say?”) Ultimately, there was too much bad blood to find a compromise. On March 30, Koppel announced he would be leaving ABC at the end of this year.

In his final working day as an ABC employee, Koppel got into the office at 7 a.m. to appear on Good Morning America. For much of the day, he gave interviews to ABC affiliates and radio stations—after all, he was the story. At 5 p.m., his wife, Grace Anne, who had never before seen a live taping at the studio, arrived. “I didn’t want him to walk out of here alone,” she said.

The control room was standing-room only. Rather than do a highlights program, the standard for a departing news god, Koppel had chosen to rebroadcast interviews with Brandeis professor Morrie Schwartz, who, during three programs ten years ago, discussed his imminent death from Lou Gehrig’s disease (the series inspired the best seller Tuesdays With Morrie). First, Koppel taped the intro. “Roone Arledge, who was president of ABC News at the time, hated the story,” he said. Then he noted that the Schwartz interviews had become Nightline’s most popular series. Next came the sign-off. With his final network news breaths, Koppel urged the audience to give the new Nightline a try; otherwise the network “will just put another comedy show in this time slot. Then you’ll be sorry.” Several hundred ABC staffers swarmed into the studio, champagne glasses in hand. Washington bureau chief Robin Sproul presented Koppel with a Disney parting gift in honor of his 40-plus years of faithful service: a large statue of Donald Duck. “Life is complete,” Koppel said.

Koppel hugged his way through a crowd of teary-eyed loyalists, then he and Grace Anne stood, arm-in-arm, to watch a short clip of tributes. Bill and Hillary Clinton. Desmond Tutu. Henry Kissinger. The actor Henry Winkler joked, “You were so good on Cheers. Oh, it’s not Ted Danson? Ted Koppelman, the news guy?”

Then the applause started, and it built, and it built, and Bettag whispered to Koppel, and Koppel smiled and called out, “Tom says Barbara’s staff clapped for a full five minutes.” From the back of the room, someone yelled, “But she had to pay them.” Koppel smiled, then turned and walked away.

An energetic 65, Koppel can afford to spend his time skiing, hiking, sailing, or visiting his four children and three grandchildren—but he has no plans to fade to black. He and Bettag are kicking around ideas for shows for their new production group—likely a series of documentaries for HBO. Though the deal isn’t done (and may yet unravel, as Time Warner looks to limit costs in the wake of Carl Icahn’s shareholder upheaval), Koppel is hoping to launch with a critical look at … TV news. “This is something you can’t do at ABC,” says Bettag. “You’d be accused of fouling your own nest or criticizing your competitors. We have an opportunity in a new venue. TV never looks at itself hard. We want to answer such questions as, ‘Why is 24-hour cable news “blondes reporting on missing blondes”?’ ”

In an earlier interview, Koppel had told me, for maybe the tenth time, that he’s really, truly not upset to be leaving ABC. “I know it makes a better story for you,” he said. He dropped his voice to sound like an anchor delivering headlines: “A resentful, bitter Koppel, driven out.” Then he laughed and added, “It’s not the case. I’m not angry. I’m not bitter. I’d like to get on with the next period of my life.” Maybe. Or maybe not. He and Bettag have talked about calling their new show The F-ing Media.

Koppel’s Therapy